A tree toppled by storm winds lies across the roof...

A tree toppled by storm winds lies across the roof of a house on Kildare Road in Garden City on Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Karen Stabile

Just about everyone in America has legitimate complaints about the government. Duh! But when disaster strikes - floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, sink holes, blizzards - most people expect government to be there to help.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency took a public beating. Too late. Too bureaucratic. Too ineffective. One of the most famous lines ever uttered by George W. Bush was to Michael Brown, the FEMA director, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," when Brownie was so not doing a good job.

The government response to Katrina was a complete scandal. Since then, a lot of time and effort went into refurbishing FEMA's image. Top people. More money. Presidential attention. In effect: Never again.

Oops. Now comes The Associated Press to report that FEMA, the new bastion of government caring and competence, is asking about 850 disabled, poor and elderly adult home residents who were victims of Hurricane Sandy to repay $5.8 million in emergency assistance provided by FEMA.

Even as they were evacuated from assisted-living facilities through dirty, swirling water and stuffed into a series of miserable people bins, including an armory, before ending up in other public facilities, they were being urged to apply for federal help.

That was help, FEMA says now, they were not supposed to get.

FEMA's reasoning is incredible. FEMA says the money paid to the people transferred from public assisted-living centers was supposed to be for temporary shelter but the government eventually took them to other public facilities. So, two years later, it expects hurricane victims to give the money back.

The Associated Press quotes a FEMA letter to Robert Rosenberg, 61, saying that he must pay back $2,486 FEMA sent him after he was flooded out or file an appeal, which, of course, means getting a lawyer.

The irony is that FEMA set up shop urging the homeless to apply for assistance. In the flood of paperwork, many people did not get the message the money they were seeking could be used only for temporary housing, not food or clothing or medical supplies to replace what they had lost.

According to AP, Rosenberg, who has a spinal disability and lives on a fixed income in a small room in an assisted-living facility in New York, spent the money on food and clothing in the aftermath of the storm. He says he has no way of repaying the $2,486, which for him might as well be $2,486,000.

Two years after the disaster, FEMA is still combing through records thinking there might be as many as 4,500 households, most still struggling to recover, who, it suspects, may not have been entitled to help and need to repay $53 million. FEMA says they might have been evacuated from vacation homes and weren't eligible for aid, or another family member might also have gotten assistance, or they had gotten aid in a previous storm and failed to buy federal flood insurance. FEMA wants these people to come up with an average of $6,987.

When you think of all the banks and companies that have received millions and millions of federal bailout money, and when you think of all the corporations that don't pay fair taxes because of clever loopholes written by lawmakers who expect big campaign donations, your blood boils.

Hey, President Obama. It's not fair. Say something! Do something! Silence.

A year ago, Obama praised FEMA workers for working despite a government shutdown. And there are many dedicated, hard-working FEMA employees who go out of their way to do good for their fellow citizens in emergencies.

But somewhere in the bowels of FEMA are unhappy wretches determined to make the lives of others as frustrating as possible. After Katrina, FEMA asked 90,000 victims for refunds, some of which Congress forgave.

It certainly gives new reason for applying even more skepticism to the old phrase: "We're from the government, and we're here to help."

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.


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